Working with parents/carers to support a struggling child

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
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How can and should we work with parents and carers when a child is struggling? Mental health expert Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers some tips, strategies and advice

There are many different ways in which a child may struggle at school in either an academic or a pastoral sense and the best outcomes for the child generally come from a positive home-school partnership.

In this article I will explore simple steps that we can take to help make this relationship work, especially if it has got off to a slightly cold or rocky start.

We’re all on the child’s team

Sometimes working with families can feel a little like us and them. We need to remember that we are actually all on the same team, that of the child – and that we are far stronger when we can find ways to work together. Genuinely child-centred planning (see my article in SecEd’s recent vulnerable learners supplement) helps us work together towards sustainable goals which the child and their family are more likely to be on board with.

Make it work by:

  • Trying to understand the child’s strengths – this is a great starting point that will aid cohesion.
  • Exploring the motivations of the child, school and family and addressing any discord.
  • Making meetings accessible to everyone involved with child and family-friendly language, format and timings.

Step into parents’ shoes

Try stepping into the shoes of a parent and understand what is happening from their point of view. Just as when working with children, look beyond the behaviour you are seeing and try to understand more deeply. Try to imagine what day-to-day is like for the parent: what are the challenges and what are their hopes?

It can be very difficult to be the parent to a child who is struggling and sometimes you may find you are met with anger or distress when actually what you are seeing is guilt, shame or worry.

Make it work by:

  • Imagining a typical day from the parent’s point of view.
  • Thinking ahead about how the information you are going to share might “land”.
  • Remembering that this is highly charged for them as their child is (hopefully) so loved.
  • Considering how to support and reassure parents who may feel guilt or shame.
  • Being curious rather than judgemental about their approaches if they differ from yours.

Signpost support – think Maslow

Families will often need to access additional support for themselves or their child. While we might think immediately of mental health support, it is always worth ensuring first that very basic needs are being met in terms of things like housing, clothing and food. Families who are safe and whose basic needs are being met are families where children (and parents) are far more likely to thrive.

Make it work by:

  • Keeping up-to-date with what is available locally; there are often brilliant charities and initiatives that can be shared. Keeping a central list (and maybe sharing with other schools) is helpful.
  • Thinking about how and where to signpost support – parents might not want to be seen to be accessing this information.
  • Some schools bring the support into school. For example, at a parents’ evening they might have various local charities or services meet and greet parents and make them aware of how they can help.
  • If a family has successfully accessed a service or support, ask if they are happy for other families to ask them how it went. This breaks down a lot of barriers.

Some parents need parenting

When we have a child who is struggling, sometimes this is a reflection of parents who are struggling too. For example, we will often see school avoidance and school-based anxiety in multiple generations.

Sometimes therefore, you will find that when you bring parents in to support with a situation, you are faced with adults who need parenting themselves, who did not have staff like yourself to support them when they were first struggling, and that the issues have perpetuated and that the cycle has continued.

While we might consider that supporting parents is not our job, working with the whole family is often very much in the best interests of the child and a small amount of support can often be quite life-changing for parents. Sometimes a little work for a short time with parents can have more and a quicker impact than a lot of work over a long period with the child.

Make it work by:

  • Bearing in mind that when they walk into school, some adults instantly become the scared child they once were.
  • Teaching emotional literacy and healthy coping skills to the parent as well as the child. This is a universally good idea as it means parents are well placed to support the skills and understanding that their child is developing.
  • Not over complicating it – sometimes a cuppa and a chat is the most helpful intervention.
  • Remembering that what works with scared children will often work with scared adults too.

Finally, there is a lot we can learn from parents too

Conversations with home should be two-way. There is a huge amount to be learned from parents and carers who are experts in their own child, so we should always be prepared to learn as well as teach in these relationships. A great way to build a really positive relationship with parents is to ask them to help us understand what is working well at home and how they can help us to better understand and support their child at school.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. You can contact Pooky via and for her previous articles in Headteacher Update, visit

Further information & resources

  • SecEd Supplement: The many faces of our vulnerable learners, January 2021 (includes the article Nothing about me without me by Dr Pooky Knightsmith and focused on child-centred planning):

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